Ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), the key enzyme for polyamine biosynthesis, dramatically decreases in activity during normal cerebellar development, in parallel with the progressive differentiation of granule neurons. We have studied whether a similar pattern is displayed by cerebellar granule neurons during survival and differentiation in culture. We report that when granule cells were kept in vitro under trophic conditions (high K+ concentration), ODC activity progressively decreased in parallel with neuronal differentiation. Under nontrophic conditions (cultures kept in low K+ concentration), the enzymatic activity dropped quickly in parallel with an increased apoptotic elimination of cells. Cultures kept in high K+ but chronically exposed to 10 mM lithium showed both an increased rate of apoptotic cell death at 2 and 4 days in vitro and a quicker drop of ODC activity and immunocytochemical staining. A short chronic treatment of rat pups with lithium also resulted in transient decrease of cerebellar ODC activity and increased programmed cell death, as revealed by in situ detection of apoptotic granule neurons. The present data indicate that a sustained ODC activity is associated with the phase of survival and differentiation of granule neurons and that, conversely, conditions that favor their apoptotic elimination are accompanied by a down-regulation of the enzymatic activity.